Please join me in welcoming Timothy Hallinan today.
Timothy is the author of nine novels published under his own name and several more under other names. His current series of thrillers is set in Bangkok, and the first two novels, A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART and THE FOURTH WATCHER, received rave reviews and were named to several “ten best” lists, both here and in Asia. The newest book in the series, BREATHING WATER, will be published (by William Morrow) on September 4, 2009. Hallinan divides his time between Santa Monica and Southeast Asia.
Two things mystify me, and I’m going to use this opportunity to talk about them.
First is the tendency of so many writers of “literary fiction” to assume that futility and despair are the primary components of the human condition, and to crank out books that end with symphonic stretches of bleakness, disappointment, disillusionment, and bereavement. Oh, and the corollary – the idea that any book that dares to venture a happy ending is Art Lite, not worth printing, and probably made possible by a secret grant from Hallmark.
Second is the reaction of people who, when they meet me and find me to be a reasonably normal human being without obvious scales or talons, say, “How can you write about all that darkness? Doesn’t it frighten your wife?”
These two things may not be obviously related, but they’re actually first cousins, at least in my mind. I write mysteries and thrillers. Mysteries and thrillers obviously contain dark elements – that’s part of what keeps readers turning the pages – but in the end, mysteries and thrillers are optimistic books, almost by definition.
A mystery or thriller begins with a world that’s out of order, broken somehow. The action of the book is the restoration of order, putting the world right again. Someone has done something terrible – how do we find out who it is and prevent its happening again? That’s the basic mystery structure. Someone is in a horrific position, facing overwhelming odds – how do we get him or her out of it? That’s the basic thriller structure. Both kinds of stories move from a broken world to a whole one.
This earns them the scorn of much of the “literary” world. Eeeewwwwww, a “happy ending.” Eeeeeeewwwww, formula writing. Eeeeeewwwwww, (dreaded phrase) genre fiction.
Here’s a secret. Both happy and unhappy endings are just literary conventions. Neither is truer to human experience than the other. They’re fiction, remember? They’re a matter of taste, not truth. Too many people in the lit-fic camp seem to believe that unhappy endings are somehow more realistic. They remind me of the film bores who praise the “realism” of black and white photography which, if color had been developed first, would strike us all as an interesting abstraction.
Ultimately, I think the basic problem is that the idea of an “ending” is itself a literary convention. In the real world, all stories are part of bigger stories that are in turn part of still-bigger stories, all the way up to the level of cosmology. There are no real beginnings and endings in life other than birth and death, and there’s plenty of disagreement about that. One of the things fiction does is say, okay, this little fragment of the story is the one we’re going to tell, which means it needs an arbitrary beginning and ending. We’ll put them here.
So what’s so unrealistic about the kind of happy ending we all experience thousands of times in our lives: the medical test comes back clear, the passing truck that’s in our lane at the top of the hill misses us, the person you love actually does fall in love with you? Is it more “realistic” to ignore those endings and keep writing the story until the cancer appears, until the wolf blows the house down and eats us?
I believe it requires a certain kind of valor, in a doomed universe in which all things are mortal and which is itself probably hurtling toward death in freezing darkness, to say, “This part of the world is broken or disordered, and it’s worth fixing. This wrong has been done, and it’s important to right it. This person is in peril and we should care whether he or she escapes it.” That’s what thrillers and mysteries do. They don’t claim to make the entire world whole and perfect, just to fix one little part that’s gone wrong.
When they don’t, people notice and react. In my first Bangkok book, A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART, the story of one of the characters that readers liked most comes to an equivocal end. I got almost 350 e-mails and letters about that character from people who wanted to learn what happened to him. Nobody wrote about any of the people whose stories were tied up satisfactorily. In the new book, BREATHING WATER, I bring that character back, but I think some people will be unsettled again because the book’s story takes place against a background of deep-seated corruption and political unrest that can’t be resolved in this sort of book. (Or in real life, apparently.) So at the end of BREATHING WATER, some of the villains are still rattling around and will undoubtedly continue to behave in a villainous manner.
But the other characters’ stories – most of them, anyway – end well. The disorder in the world that affected them most directly has been resolved. And even though they know the larger world hasn’t been miraculously made whole, and that they’re going to get old and die one day, perhaps painfully, they’re willing to accept what they’ve been given, and to accept it with happiness. For now.
That’s good enough for me. I like stories like that.
Next week I’ll have two great announcements. Hope to see you then.